United States Senate candidates Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz sparred on issues from inflation to crime in the lone debate of a Pennsylvania race that will help decide whether Democrats retain control of the Senate.
The pair exchanged critiques for an hour in the state capital Harrisburg in a high-stakes encounter for both parties, with Republicans needing to flip just one seat to prize the upper chamber of Congress from Democratic control.
Fetterman’s team had been doing some expectation-setting to counter questions as to whether the 53-year-old is up to the job amid his comeback from a stroke in May.
He is making an encouraging physical recovery but struggles to grasp some spoken words and occasionally to access words when speaking, according to his doctors.
Fetterman apologised preemptively for any words he might miss but added that his campaign was about “fighting for everyone in Pennsylvania that never got knocked down.”
The Democrat, who swapped his trademark hoodie for a sober business suit, covering his tattooed forearms, requested closed captioning to help him understand the questions.
“If he’s on TV, he’s lying,” Fetterman said of Oz, the 62-year-old celebrity heart surgeon. He accused his opponent of misleading voters about his record and complaining that the doctor has “never let me forget” about the stroke.
Monitors displayed a real-time transcript of the moderators’ questions and Oz’s answers.
Strategists from both parties believe the party that wins the Pennsylvania seat – vacated by retiring Republican Pat Toomey – will hold the Senate majority next year.
Fetterman held a commanding lead for much of the campaign but the race has tightened to a statistical tie as Republicans make ground on Democrats nationwide in the most recent polling.
Inflation, abortion, crime
US inflation has hit 40-year highs, inflicting pain on consumers and forcing Democrats like Fetterman to play defence on an issue that polling shows is voters’ top concern.
Oz and Republicans have sought to tie Democrats’ big-spending bills combating issues including COVID-19 and climate change to rising consumer prices.
Oz said his experience as a heart surgeon taught him how to make difficult decisions.
Fetterman refused to apologize for pulling a gun on an innocent black jogger in 2013.
Fetterman did not explain if he still supports Bernie Sanders' Medicare for All plan.
Fetterman did not explain why he failed to pay his taxes 67 times.
— Dr. Mehmet Oz (@DrOz) October 26, 2022
“I’ll make them cut our budget as well to make sure we don’t have to raise taxes on a population already desperately in pain from the high inflation rate,” Oz said.
Fetterman called inflation a tax on working families.
“Dr Oz can’t possibly understand what that is like,” he said, questioning whether Oz can really empathise with American families.
Fetterman said the rising costs only bolster his support for a federal $15 minimum wage, something Oz opposes putting into law.
Abortion was another hot-button issue that divided the two candidates during the debate.
Oz insists he supports three exceptions – for rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother.
When pressed Tuesday night, he suggested he opposes South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill to impose a nationwide ban on abortion after 15 weeks because it would allow the federal government to dictate the law to states.
“I’m not going to support federal rules that block the ability of states to do what they wish to do,” Oz said.
Fetterman delivered a blunt message to women: “If you believe that the choice for abortion belongs with you and your doctor, that’s what I fight for.”
In recent weeks, pro-Oz commercials have been flooding the airwaves, painting Fetterman as a far-left liberal who is soft on crime.
Fetterman is “trying to get as many murderers out of jail as possible,” Oz said during the debate. “His extreme positions have made him untenable.”
Oz’s attacks come against the backdrop of a surge in murders and crime in Philadelphia, the state’s largest city and the most important region in statewide elections.